It always interests me when “we fellow Americans” talk about war. Far and away the wars that are talked about are largely determined by the generation engaged in the conversation. Centagenarians will talk of the days of their parents and grandparents fighting in the Civil War and WWI. Baby boomers will no doubt focus on WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Generation X will sometimes start with these conflicts but also will reference more recent conflicts like the Gulf War. Younger generations nearly always reference the latter.
What can easily be argued as our country’s most important war, the Revolutionary War, is also the most easily forgotten – and by far the least referenced by the general populace. It is easy to forget that without it we very likely would be singing Hail to the Queen instead of the National Anthem.
All of this to say that it was refreshing to hear President Obama end his inaugural speech with a reference to the Revolutionary War. Here’s that portion of his speech:
"In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
“Let it be told to the future world… that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive… that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
So what’s going on and what is Obama referring to?
In the Summer of 1775 George Washington assumed command of the American Army (Continental Army) at Cambridge, Massachusetts. The British were in the middle of an ongoing siege of Boston. Long story short, Washington eventually forced the British out of Boston and gained much credibility in the process. So much so, that even the British newspapers back in London praised his personal character and qualities as a military commander.
The commander for the British during the Boston siege was General William Howe. His loss at Boston, combined with Washington’s rising star, made him none too happy. Further, a fairly important event happened on July 4, 1776 that served to exacerbate the situation back in jolly old England. So, in August of 1776 Howe launched a massive naval and land campaign designed to seize New York, the site where Washington had moved his army.
The Continental Army under Washington engaged the enemy for the first time as an army of the newly declared independent United States at the Battle of Long Island, the largest battle of the entire war. The United States army was defeated. This and several other British victories sent Washington scrambling out of New York and across New Jersey, leaving the future of the Continental Army in doubt.
And more importantly in doubt was the entire revolution. In 1775 Great Britain viewed the upheaval in America in the same way we might view teenagers out one night toilet papering houses – a nuisance. After July 4th, that all changed. As he “scrambled” away from the enemy, his army in tatters, Washington was clearly concerned that this revolution was not going to succeed. He knew Great Britain was going to bring down the full weight of its army on his troops. Any soldier left alive would be killed as a traitor. Washington himself would only be able to wish for a quick death if he were to be captured.
So in the midst of all of this Washington found himself and his army sitting and freezing on the banks of the Delaware River on Christmas Day 1776. They were hungry and exhausted. It is said that hunger and fatigue “make cowards of us all.” Add freezing temperatures to the mix and you get a picture of the scene. And of course the biggest problem of all - Washington had tugged on Superman’s cape and Superman was ready to fight. What to do?
Well, as men of great resolve inevitably do, Washington took action. He decided first to speak to his troops – or more accurately, have something read to them. He chose the words carefully...and they were not his own. They were the words of one of this country’s greatest and most unappreciated patriots, Thomas Paine, and they are from his The American Crisis, written earlier in December 1776. (I’ve added a section before and a section after the portion that was read by President Obama yesterday for context. Obama omitted the phrase “…and to repulse it.”)
Thomas Paine -
I turn with the warm ardour of a friend to those who have nobly stood yet determined to stand the matter out; I call not upon a few, but upon all; not on THIS state or THAT truth but on EVERY state; up and help us; lay your shoulders to the wheel; better have too much force than too little, when so great an object is at stake. Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, come forth to meet and to repulse it. Say not, that thousands are gone, turn out your tens of thousands; throw not the bur hen of the day upon Providence, but "Shew your faith by your works," that God may bless you. It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all. The far and the near, the home counties and the back, the rich and the poor, shall suffer or rejoice alike. The heart that feels not now, is dead: The blood of his children shall curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole, and made them happy. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.
And with those words on December 25, 1776, in the dark frigid night, Washington staged one of the most famous counterattacks in history, leading the American forces across the icy Delaware River to capture nearly 1,000 Hessians (German troops loyal to the British) in Trenton, New Jersey. Washington followed up his victory at Trenton with another one at Princeton in early January. These winter victories quickly raised the morale of the army, secured Washington's position as Commander, and inspired young men to join the army.
And gave inspiration and resolve to a fledgling infant nation.
President Obama, you have chosen and spoken words from men who knew what it was to truly risk their own blood for the sake of country and to lay their “shoulders to the wheel.” Here’s hoping that you live up to their oh-so-lofty standards.